Can a military mind whip Pirates into winners?

BRADENTON, Fla. – Improving baseball performance in ways other than spending time on the diamond has long been met by resistance from the old guard. With the Pittsburgh Pirates, though, any remnant of the old guard was swept away in the team’s removal of veteran players, coaches and anyone else who carried the stench of 17 consecutive years of losing.

Pirates minor leaguers will get military mental training from Bernie Holliday.
(Dave Arrigo/Pirates)

“Changing the culture” is the slogan du jour, and while it sounds vaguely like something out of the People’s Republic of China circa 1950, the Pirates are committed to shaping the minds of their young ballplayers as much as they are honing physical skills. Enter mental conditioning expert Bernie Holliday, who undoubtedly would blanch at the communist China comparison because he spent the last six years at West Point steeling the psyches of fledgling U.S. Army officers.

Holliday, 36, has an office at the team’s spring headquarters, wears a black Pirates pullover like all the coaches who carry around fungo bats and commands the attention of large groups of players in daily training sessions. For now Holliday’s mental conditioning will be directed solely at minor leaguers, in part because of worries that big leaguers might not be receptive to his concepts and techniques. Apparently, old-guard mentality continues to fester, even if the old guards themselves have been – as Mao used to say – purged.

Sports psychologists and other purveyors of above-the-neck expertise aren’t particularly new. Ken Ravizza, a Southern California-based professor whose shingle bears the title Peak Performance Consultant, is widely known in MLB circles for his work with the Los Angeles Angels and his book, “Heads-Up Baseball.” He continues to work with teams – the Tampa Bay Rays, in particular, because of his long relationship with manager Joe Maddon.

The Rays, in fact, recently hired a Ravizza disciple, Lance Green of Tulane University, as a full-time mental skills coach charged with implementing a systematic approach throughout the minor league system much the same as Holliday will do with the Pirates.

Ravizza, Harvey Dorfman, Chad Bohling, former pitcher Bob Tewksbury and others have worked between ballplayers’ ears, tackling issues ranging from fear of failure in a game rife with it, to concentrating amid enormous distractions, to persevering through the daily grind, to maintaining composure under pressure. Mental conditioning trainers employ visualization techniques and utilize the latest biofeedback and video technology.

The field is growing, and Holliday’s entry adds a new and intriguing twist: a military approach. Kyle Stark, the Pirates’ director of player development, visited West Point during the offseason in search of ideas and left with Holliday.

“I told them, ‘How about if I not only pick your brain but pick your pocket and steal one of your employees?’ ” Stark said. “I was drawn to Bernie by a couple of things. One is that he had been doing work with West Point athletes as well as soldiers. The discipline, the respect, a lot of the things we are preaching here are obviously important to the military as well.

“The other thing is that if he can get a soldier to be calm, cool and collected under pressure – and let’s have a little perspective here – I think we can get a hitter or pitcher to do the same thing.”

Despite being reluctant to cast the spotlight on himself so early in his employment with the Pirates, Holliday agreed to an interview with Yahoo! Sports. He described his background, detailed the program he will implement and discussed the growing mental training field and how it applies to baseball.

Why decide to mentally train ballplayers instead of soldiers?

Bernie Holliday: The program Kyle Stark described to me seemed to parallel my philosophy. There are a lot of similarities on how he wants to grow the mental conditioning side of the Pirates and the beliefs I have about how the job should be done. My job at the end of my Army experience was to train our trainers to train the soldiers, and I no longer had the one-on-one connections with the soldiers, and I missed that. My passion was being in the trenches, doing the work every day, talking to the players, coaches, soldiers and commanders. Taking this job enables me to move close to the front lines and do the work with the players and coaches.

How much had you followed baseball?

Bernie Holliday: I understand the mental side of baseball, but I’m learning very quickly that there is a lot more to learn. The guys at this level, there is so much intricacy and subtlety in how to execute, and I’m fascinated by that. So that’s where my growth curve has to be very sharp.

How do you view the job?

Bernie Holliday: Just as you’d develop physically in the weight room, you want to develop mentally so that you are at your best when it matters most. I think of my position as the mental equivalent of a strength coach, as opposed to the mental equivalent of an athletic trainer. The trainer takes an individual who has an injury and helps get him playing; a strength coach takes a player who is playing and helps him become stronger, faster and more dominant. Rather than focusing on the 5 percent who struggle, let’s focus on the 95 percent who are pretty darn good and want to get better.

Bernie Holliday (R) chats with the Pirates’ Delwyn Young in spring training.
(Dave Arrigo/Pirates)

Given your background in the military, what are some of the ways you can make guys mentally tough?

Bernie Holliday: I’m not a therapist, not a psychologist, not a psychiatrist and not a trained medical specialist. I don’t have a license to do that. My training is predominantly as an educator. I want to make sure these guys get mental reps, just like you get reps on the field and in the weight room. There are ways to get mental reps when it comes to developing confidence, practicing concentration and learning to become more composed under stress. Those three C’s – confidence, concentration and composure – are what I base my work around. When players have those three things aligned they start to see that next level of performance. We do some specific detailed goal-setting, so they have a plan every day and have motivation with a big goal, and the smaller daily goals provide the focus. We have techniques to gain composure, so that when they are in a pressure situation they’ve rehearsed it enough to succeed.

How can game pressure be simulated?

Bernie Holliday: We’re introducing technology into the process. We will create personalized visualization scripts for the players. They’ll come up with the way they want to play the game, put together the scenario they want to experience and the way they want to perform in that scenario, and we put it on an iPod or iPhone and they can listen to it and rehearse it. They practice that visualization as we increase distractions, increase pressure. First they do it before going to bed, then before a workout, then they find ways to build it into momentary pauses within a ballgame. We’ve got crowd noise. We’ll get them physically exhausted and simulate the level of intensity your body experiences in a big moment.

So the goal is for a player to be able to apply the concepts in the seventh game of the World Series, that the mental toughness techniques wouldn’t desert a player then?

Bernie Holliday: That you’ve used it enough times that it’s become just a part of who you are. Repetition builds strength, so the more you can do the right things, as we increase the pressure and increase the quality, you’ll have that ability when you need it.

Why focus on minor leaguers at the outset? Why not step into the major league clubhouse and make an immediate impression there?

Bernie Holliday: The systematic approach is going to be carried out at the minor league level. The program and these skills are certainly going to be available to major leaguers. We want to make sure it is something they are interested in doing, that they are comfortable and that a trust is built before we hit the major league guys hard.

Is there potentially a resistance to this?

Bernie Holliday: Certainly. We’d like to fine-tune it, get it really wired tight, and help people understand the larger culture we are trying to build. I believe that is going to spread. People are going to get behind the program once they see it in action, and once they build confidence in some of the principles they are understanding and once they start to feel that culture change in what mental conditioning can offer a player.

How much time will you get with the players?

Bernie Holliday: We’ve got a series of 12 short talks scheduled with every player in the minor league system, in groups of 25 to 30. We’ll discuss what great players do, what great players think, how you can build skills and techniques to move toward becoming an extraordinary thinker. We’ll cover what I call the six fundamentals: the foundation, confidence building, attention control, managing energy, goal setting and visualization. In the afternoons I’ll be available if somebody wants a more personal approach.

Do the players remind you of soldiers? They are all young males. Is there a parallel that provides a comfort level?

Bernie Holliday: Something I’ve been fascinated by is going into a coach’s office and taking a look at his bookshelf. You’ll always see books about great military leaders. And when I visit military commanders, I take a look at their bookshelves and there are books about great coaches. There is a borrowing from both cultures that is beneficial. Soldiers want to be at their best because they are going to be deployed, their lives are on the line and freedom is at stake. Ballplayers want to be at their best to build a career, pursue a dream, provide for their families and win a World Series. So there’s this pursuit of excellence I see in both groups. At the same time there is the light-hearted young adult you see. That’s refreshing, too, to see that side where they just want to have a good time and be a 22-year-old while at the same time be a soldier or pro ballplayer.

Does this demographic lend itself to what you are doing? Are they sponges, receptive to new ideas?

Bernie Holliday: You are going to find a wide variety of receptivity. There’s going to be a small group happy to do everything I say because they are enticed by the idea of being great and exploring their upper limits. There’s going to be a group that doesn’t want anything to do with it. And there is a big group in the middle who want to get into it, want to get their feet wet and see where it goes. That’s the group I focus most of my effort on.

Baseball is a game of failure and a player has to have a short memory. What is the ideal mindset to succeed? Might it be uniquely tailored to that constant failure and also to the repetition and daily grind inherent in the sport?

Bernie Holliday: In baseball there are no guaranteed results and no guarantee of consistent success. So if you are basing confidence on results, you are going to have a tough time feeling confident. We try to help players develop confidence through the daily accomplishment of goals and bring that confidence to the results rather than wait for the results and build confidence from there. It’s a different way of looking at where confidence comes from and how it is acquired. When it comes to failure, it’s critical these guys see failure as short-term, temporary and changeable. The danger is when you see failure as permanent, all-encompassing and the way it is.

You use the term “goose-bump goals.” What are they?

Bernie Holliday: It’s important that people have something really meaningful they are going after, something that makes the hair on the back of their neck stand up when they think about accomplishing it, something that gives them a chill down their spine when they visualize themselves reaching it. Motivationally, that’ll get you through a lot of the day-to-day ups and downs. And if you are lacking it, those ups and downs are really going to take their toll on you.

Ideally, in three years or so, several of the minor league players you are working with will be on the major league roster. What kind of relationship do you anticipate having with them at that point?

Bernie Holliday: In working with a player, as strange as this sounds, I try to work myself out of a job. I don’t want them to become dependent on having to rely on someone else to help them figure out confidence and to understand how to concentrate. If I do my job well, and this program is set up the way it needs to be, guys are going to learn how to practice these skills, get really good at them and make it part of who they are. All I need to do is give them a little high five and let them go out and be who they are.

How do you measure your progress? How will you and the organization measure your impact?

Bernie Holliday: That’s the million-dollar question. And it’s an inherent challenge in the field of sports psychology. We’re working with the mental intangibles that underlie success. And it’s very challenging to put a certain number or grade on something like motivation, persistence, focus and perseverance. I don’t know if anybody has really cracked the code on that yet. Much of how we do it is staying in touch with the players and what seemed to work and what seemed to stick and getting constant feedback from the coaching staff.

So you will be working with the Pirates coaches?

Bernie Holliday: The mental conditioning program cannot succeed without the absolute support of the coaches. I’m not going to be with all the teams all the time. The coaches are working with the players every day, getting to know the guys, how they perform under stress, their strengths and weaknesses. One of my big goals is to help the coaches understand what I do and what mental conditioning is, and that should work itself into the way they reinforce the guys day to day. So I really look forward to their support.

What is the future of mental conditioning? What’s on the horizon?

Bernie Holliday: I’m optimistic that our field is going to progress the way the strength and conditioning field has. Thirty years ago, athletes didn’t want to do strength and conditioning because they thought they’d become muscle-bound and inflexible. And now you can’t find a program that doesn’t have a comprehensive strength staff. I’m hoping that in the years to come mental conditioning is seen a lot like physical conditioning. Also, there is a lot of intriguing biofeedback software and other technological advances that help better understand what’s happening physiologically when you practice, train and compete. We’ll see that take hold as we move forward in the 21st century.

Steve Henson is a Senior Writer and Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Monday, Mar 1, 2010